Whether Ian Evatt and his relentless Wanderers want to sing it from the hilltops or not – they are now genuine automatic promotion contenders.
Boasting the country’s longest unbeaten run and a squad depth that makes most League Two clubs green with envy, Bolton’s name can finally be mentioned on a national stage again for the football, and not the finances.
Not that you would know the Whites were on a hot streak by talking to the manager or the man firing most of the goals.
Evatt is doing his damnedest to play it cool – and leading scorer Eoin Doyle could barely utter the words ‘top three’ after breaking down his 16th strike of the season, which was all that was needed to topple another direct rival, Forest Green.
The wide grin on both men’s faces betrayed their careful rhetoric. There is no doubt whatsoever that Bolton are having a ball and, rather encouragingly, that they are not taking their electric form for granted.
Who could possibly have thought at the end of January when Wanderers were 19th in the table and a small portion of the fanbase were demanding a change in manager that we would be joking about social media memes and substitute keepers with the same man some 60 days later, on the best unbeaten run for 21 years?
Back then, ‘progress’ would have been the only target for the more optimistic folk. A few wins later, some of the glass-half-full brigade might have even mentioned ‘play-offs’.
As it happens, three points at the New Lawn guarantees that Wanderers will not be relegated for a third consecutive season. One suspects, however, that their targets are a little higher with nine games remaining.
It is to the credit of everyone involved – owners, managers, coaching staff and players – that they have turned the ship around. As one fan joked on Saturday evening: “Get Evatt out to the Suez Canal immediately!”
But it is no wonder that they do not want to rock the boat with any bold predictions. The time for saying ‘I told you so’ will be in May, hopefully with some silverware in hand.
Bolton have played much better attacking football this season than they did against Forest Green but have never looked so professionally polished, particularly in defence.
Evatt’s ‘Safety Box’ of Ricardo Santos, Alex Baptiste, MJ Williams and Kieran Lee were virtually impenetrable, ensuring an eighth clean sheet in 13 games. Due mention must also go to goalkeeper Matt Gilks, who despite having only one serious save to make in 90 minutes, took huge pressure off his defenders with a series of important catches and claims from set pieces. But this was also a victory which emphasised the importance of defending from the front. Eoin Doyle, George Thomason, Nathan Delfouneso and Dapo Afolayan had little opportunity to dazzle on the ball but their discipline to hold shape, to press in an almost military fashion, is one of the keys to the recent success.
In truth, Forest Green were virtually on par on that front.
The Gloucestershire men typically employ a similar style to Bolton, although this season they have added a more physical presence in top scorer Jamille Matt, which has enabled a little more flexibility.
Matt’s departure just a few minutes into the game with a nasty hand injury will have been a psychological blow – but the home side remained impressively organised, even if some of their decision making around the penalty box left something to be desired.
By comparison, Bolton looked happy to absorb and spring into action using Declan John or Gethin Jones as the outlet on either flank. They looked regularly for a quick switch of play to exploit the rare spaces on a tight pitch but found it tough to create anything clear-cut.
Bolton gave themselves problems at times with a risky pass in their own half. Home wing-back Kane Wilson always looked a danger on the ball and had one effort blocked at the near post by Gilks after sneaking around Afolayan on the edge of the box.
Forest Green pressed well and had they made better choices around the penalty area they might have given themselves a lead to protect.
Wanderers once again relied on a moment of class to edge ahead. Firstly, Delfouneso’s burst down the right, his perfect cross finding Doyle to finish with only his ninth touch of the ball in 40 minutes of play. With ruthlessness like that, who needs possession?
Youngster Thomason – who aside from a few stray passes showed such maturity on his return to the starting line-up in place of Lloyd Isgrove – went close with a daisy cutter, and full-back John also whistled a shot at Lewis Thomas’s goal. As the two sides went in at the break, Evatt cannot fail to have been pleased with the effort on show.
The second half proved even more of a defensive test for the Whites. Pinned in for long periods and asked to repel a succession of free kicks and corners, it was all hands to the pump.
There may have been some respite had referee David Rock given a penalty Wanderers’ way midway through the half as Afolayan wriggled past ex-Bolton trainee Chris Stokes. He was unconvinced by the winger’s theatrics, however, continuing a narrative in which he gave little to Evatt’s side and seemed only too happy to explain why.
Over-officious refereeing aside, the rest of the game was played out in relative comfort. Wanderers defended with such distinction that their narrow lead was never under serious threat, especially as Evatt’s replacements – Lloyd Isgrove, Shaun Miller, Arthur Gnahoua and Andy Tutte – slid effortlessly into action.
While those on the touchline looked on with fingers crossed, those on the pitch saw out injury time with no real drama, in the most sensible manner possible. And the same can be said for the mechanical way Wanderers are going about their business right now.
So if the machine is purring along so nicely, there seems little else to do but sit back and enjoy the ride?
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